Hyundai UK uses "trademark infringement" claims to make its own ad go away


It looked like a winner at first. On April 19, The Drum – Britain’s equivalent of Adweek – named agency Innocean’s new 60-second Hyundai ix35 video Ad of the Day and Ad of the Week. On the 25th, The Guardian highlighted the spot and urged readers to view it. But by the 26th, Business Insider reports, Hyundai was “desperately” and “unsuccessfully” trying “to make its…video disappear” – by flagging reposts as trademark infringements.

Not a new idea

While dramatic, the commercial’s idea wasn’t a new one.

To demonstrate that fact that the hydrogen-burning ix35’s emissions comprised nothing more lethal than water vapor, the spot shows a depressed man sealing himself into his garage, then into his Hyundai, with the motor running and a hose going from the tailpipe to the passenger compartment. As we cut to an exterior shot of the garage, it’s now nighttime. The man, having failed at suicide, emerges from his garage, as a super explains that the ix35’s exhaust is pure water vapor.

As it turns out, using failed suicide attempts to demonstrate a car’s non-toxic exhaust isn’t a particularly new idea.

As Adland points out, an Audi A5 commercial used it in 2010.

A Citroen commercial used it in 2002.

So did a Nissan Sentra commercial in South Africa in 1997.

But that’s not why the the commercial turned so sour on them that they’re using all kinds of tactics to flush it down the memory hole.

A London digital copywriter named Holly Brockwell is.

Some people just can’t take a joke

Ms. Brockwell didn’t see the humor in the spot, which is understandable when you consider that her father committed suicide the same way. And she took to her blog to say so, in an open post to Hyundai:

When your ad started to play, and I saw the beautifully-shot scenes of taped-up car windows with exhaust feeding in, I began to shake. I shook so hard that I had to put down my drink before I spilt it. And then I started to cry. I remembered looking out of the window to see the police and ambulance, wondering what was happening. I remember mum sitting me down to explain that daddy had gone to sleep and would not be waking up, and no, he wouldn’t be able to take me to my friend’s birthday party next week. No, he couldn’t come back from heaven just for that day, but he would like to if he could. I remember finding out that he had died holding my sister’s soft toy rabbit in his lap.

Surprisingly, when I reached the conclusion of your video, where we see that the man has in fact not died thanks to Hyundai’s clean emissions, I did not stop crying. I did not suddenly feel that my tears were justified by your amusing message. I just felt empty. And sick. And I wanted my dad.

My dad never drove a Hyundai. Thanks to you, neither will I.

Commercial? What commercial?

By 5:00 PM London time, April 26, Hyundai started running in circles trying to disavow the spot.

As if a 3,000-mile-wide ocean weren’t distance enough, Hyundai Motor America tried to distance themselves from the spot with a statement saying, “We at Hyundai Motor America are shocked and saddened by the depiction of a suicide attempt in an inappropriate European video featuring a Hyundai. Suicide merits thoughtful discussion, not this type of treatment.”

The parent company, Hyundai Motor, chimed in: “Hyundai Motor deeply and sincerely apologizes for the offensive viral ad. The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval. It runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community. We are very sorry for any offense or distress the video caused. More to the point, Hyundai apologizes to those who have been personally impacted.”

And in the UK, they’ve been scrambling to get the video taken down by reporting it for alleged trademark infringement. But for every link that leads to a “This video is no longer available due to a trademark claim by a third party notice,” more links to the commercial itself are popping up.

Internet technology raises important questions

The whole episode raises both moral and pragmatic questions:

  • While no one questions Ms. Brockwell’s genuinely heartfelt anguish, was the basic cause the viral video – which one has to seek out on YouTube, as opposed to seeing it appear unexpectedly on broadcast or cable television – or her father’s suicide itself? Had he not killed himself in this manner, would she still have felt the same way about seeing the video?
  • Is there something about today’s zeitgeist that dictates bland inoffensiveness in advertising? While the Hyundai video was straightforward in its production and direction, both the 1997 Nissan spot and the 2002 Citroen spot treated the suicide attempts as comedy – dark comedy, but comedy nonetheless. Yet, there’s no record of this kind of blowback to either. No anguish. No outrage. No “deep and sincere” apologies. No “thoughtful discussion.”
  • Does the Internet force advertisers to walk on eggshells? In the South Africa of 1997, the technology that could let anyone make and post any kind of video didn’t exist yet. In 2002, blogging was in its infancy. Nobody had the power to either make guerilla videos, nor to bring advertisers to their knees with well-written blog posts that go viral.

Please let me emphasize here that these are real, not rhetorical questions; I don’t know the right answers. Neither, I suspect, does the advertising industry as a whole. And if you do, your comments are very welcome (scroll down).

The industry has long subscribed to the belief that if advertising didn’t make the audience feel at least a little bit uncomfortable, it wasn’t doing its job effectively. Are we now at a point where we have to look constantly over our shoulders, making sure there’s no basis for offending even one person with access to the blogosphere’s ultra-powerful  microphone?

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